One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, "Do you want to be made well?" The sick one answered him, "Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me." Jesus said to him, "Stand up, take your mat and walk." At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. - John 5:5-6
There is a new epidemic in our country. It's not a new strain of Norovirus, Influenza B, or MRSA.
It's heroin. Heroin is taking lives by the thousands: in my small, well-educated, blue state of Massachusetts, which you might think would be immune to this particular disease, 185 people have died in the last 3 months because of overdoses from a deadly strain of heroin adulterated with the painkiller fentanyl.
The mythology around addiction says that we are immune because of our choices, or our moral superiority, or our personal strength. But that's simply not true. While many of the people dying are young men, many are not. Heroin and other opiate addiction does not discriminate. It is killing middle-aged people, women, people holding down steady jobs, people who grew up in happy homes, A students—every one of them a child of God.
A recent Rolling Stone magazine article taught me this: One thing heroin addicts will tell you is that they no longer talk about using in terms of getting high—they say they are "getting well." Ironically, to fend off feelings that they are dying, they put a substance into their bodies that may kill them.
Jesus, time and time again, when he encountered humans who were suffering, in pain, in frail mental and/or physical health, said "do you want to be made well?" Like modern addicts, those suffering had turned into people who didn't recognize themselves, doing things they would otherwise never do. Jesus restored them to themselves. Permanently.
The first step in combatting this epidemic is being willing to talk about it openly, without shame. The second step is getting people who are ready the help they need: be it detox or 12-step meetings or a sacred space to feel that God's love is real and specifically for them.
We are the body of Christ in the world, the only one He has left. How will we receive people who are actively using, who need our love, who need us to say "Do you want to be made well?" and then lead them to the source of real healing, without judgment or expectation? Can we receive them just as they are, without one plea, every Sunday, even if they go back to using Monday through Saturday—and jump for joy if even one person is made well because of our ministrations?
At our church, on every communion Sunday which is also a Sunday when we especially welcome alcoholics and addicts, our invitation to the table goes something like this:
Beloved, this table has been set for you. This meal has been prepared for you. It doesn't matter who you are. It doesn't matter what you've done. It doesn't matter if you're an old-school, congregational teetotaler who has never even tasted a drop of alcohol. And it doesn't matter if you're an alcoholic. Or if you're a heroin addict. It doesn't matter if you've overdosed and are still using. It doesn't matter if your last hit happened just before you walked in the church door. This is the table of love and grace. And all of us will come to it together – sharing one another's pain and knowing that all of us – all of us, no matter who we are – need the healing and the forgiveness that can be found in this meal.
This is not our table, it's not First Church Somerville's table, it's not the United Church of Christ's table. This is God's Table and all are welcome here. The bread is vegan, the cup is non-alcoholic, gluten-free crackers are available – let nothing stand in your way, because this feast has been set for you.
God of the sober and the still-addicted, in our communities real church is happening every day of the week, with bad coffee and good testimony, at the AA meetings in our church basements. Let our sanctuaries upstairs be just as ready to receive your hurting people with radical, nonjudgmental love and real help. Amen.
Molly Baskette is senior minister of First Church Somerville UCC in Somerville, MA, and the author of the book Real Good Church: How Our Church Came Back from the Dead and Yours Can Too.